Your Kids Can (Want to) Help!

photo credit: 
Jenny Lee Silver on flickr
First steps in encouraging kids to help clean up

Ever wish you had two extra pairs of hands to help with the dishes and the dusting? You do have them! They are not attached to your body (at least not now) and they do not belong to your husband.

They are your children! But how does one get them to pitch in?

Get them used to it early
The first rule is to start young. Children are born wanting to explore every facet of life, even the mundane ones. They are wired for learning to become independent. Learning to care for their bodies and their surroundings is part of that.

"Can I help?" is a question every three-year-old asks constantly. Start saying yes every once in a while! Saying no too often to the question "Can I help?" will shut down their natural curiosity. Then they will be content to sit on the couch watching you do all the work.

In their little minds, they think they aren't able to participate with mommy. It is something too grown up for them (in some ways yes, but I'll get to that later). And worse, we think it is too grown up for them, too. Their slow, awkward movements frustrate us and we say, "Oh, let me do it."

Let go of schedules perfect outcomes
To overcome our frustration, it is better to view housework (and learning) as a process instead of a task to check. Adults can easily grasp an "action list"; children do not. They also don't have a sense of time constraints like we do. Ever try to get a cranky three-year-old up and ready to go in twenty minutes? Slow down.

Get the perspective of what it is like to learn how to handle a dustpan for the first time. Only offer help if they ask for it or disaster is imminent. Slow down. Aim only for satisfactory, not perfect. If you truly need the kitchen sparkling, then go over it again when they are asleep. Did I mention slow down?

After you have slowed down to preschool pace, you can relax. Things will spill, tip over, shatter, smear, stick together and come apart. Life is messy while children are learning to clean up. Learn to trust your pumpkin with the everyday dishes and glasses. Yes, one or three might break on the tile floor and unless someone is injured, who cares? If there is no crime, there is no guilt and no tears. By the way, tell them to carry dishes one at a time with both hands and walk. You might try it yourself!

So now you have your attitude in order, how do you get into the everyday house care routine with your children? The first step is to have a routine!

Children aren't as able to synthesize new concepts among piles of things and random schedules. The benefits of having a weekly system of chores extends beyond yourself and your own sanity, it is good for them as well. Set up a flexible schedule that suits your family's needs and stick to it. Generally, have one major daily task such as laundry or shopping combined with smaller jobs related to meal preparation and other such regular occurrences.

You don't have to "get it together" first
But don't think everything must be in shipshape order before you can initiate your children into the world of housework! Like everything you will do from now on, INCLUDE them in your re-organization. Your dwelling is their dwelling, too. Whatever new routines you devise, they will most likely not rebel if you have them help in planning. And if they have helped, they will think its their idea. All better in having them take responsibility!

If the major cleaning bug does bite while they are at school, try to contain it until they get home. They will see their stuff all in a jumble, excuse me, organized and pitch a fit. But if you have them pick out plastic bins or run the labeling machine, they will take to it much less begrudgedly.

Now, on to specifics!
Here is a list of basics for facilitating children's natural curiosity and desire to learn housework:

Cut sponges in half with kitchen scissors and place them on a plate on a low shelf or table. Put by them a stack of separated paper towels. When there are spills and sticky spots, kids can access these themselves. For bigger issues like broken glass or spills on carpet, have them ask you for help. Also, if you have a favorite non-toxic spray concoction, put some in a small spray bottle near this set-up for children over age 7.

Keep stools handy around the kitchen, if you don't already use them for yourself. Kids are much more willing to help if them feel they can be up for the job.

Hang a floor brush and matching dustpan on a nail, again in child-accessible range. When sweeping with your broom, make piles and have a four-year-old follow you. I had one girl who would beg me every day for two weeks to do this job. If her parents only knew! Another great find, though I don't know where one can find these, are small sized brooms, both push and pull varieties. Keep your eyes peeled at Home Depot and let me know.

If you sew, you can make cleaning mits out of cheap washcloths. Trace a kid-sized hand shape, sans thumb as a pattern. (Make adult sizes, too!) Cut two and serge or zigzag them together. Add a small bit of elastic on one bottom edge and you have a tool kids love to use. Use these or old socks when dusting or cleaning wood furniture. Add a bit of Murphey's Oil Soap spray and have them rub down everything in sight. This is a good project for rainy days.

If you have a hamper system for laundry, consider having a small one for each child. On laundry day, they can easily sort whites from colors for you. (Give them two small baskets for this.) They can throw it into the washing machine and add detergent under your supervision.

Have them fold! With dinner napkins they can learn the basics of lengthwise and crosswise folding. Then progress to their t-shirts and shorts. Socks are a good game for five year olds. They actually enjoy learning to match them and tuck them up like kangaroos.

You're in charge, but remember to step back
In all of these tasks, it is important to be in the position of supervisor. You can delegate who does what, dole out important supplies, and make sure everyone is on task (without nagging!). If you jump in too readily to help, your child's frustration level will be very low. They will whine and say "I can't" knowing Mommy will step in and take over.

Let them get a little frustrated, especially when you are sure they are capable of being successful. When they do succeed, heap on the praise. Then they will be confident of their new ability and want to try it again. And you will have helping hands in your work!

Anna "The Nanna" Horvath is a professional nanny and former Montessori preschool teacher's aide in Alexandria, Virginia.